NDP satellite offices: What to expect from Tom Mulcair's committee appearance
Official opposition party leaders not normally forced to submit to questioning by committee
When New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair takes his seat at the procedure and House affairs committee table this morning, it will be the first time in recent memory that a sitting leader of the Official Opposition has been forced to submit to questioning in an official parliamentary context.
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Members of Parliament are, after all, exempt from the committee's power to summon witnesses; they can be invited to testify, but not ordered to appear.
In 2012, the House natural resources committee invited then-Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau to attend a future meeting to be questioned over past comments on Alberta's energy sector, but never got around to setting a date for that discussion.
In Mulcair's case, it was the House of Commons, and not the committee, that instructed the committee to arrange a question-and-answer session with the NDP leader.
Even if he weren't as keen to provide his side of the story on those now-shuttered satellite offices and pre-byelection mail drops as his staff have repeatedly insisted that he is, he wouldn't have had the option of responding to the RSVP with his regrets.
So, what can those watching this possibly unprecedented event expect from tomorrow's two-hour confab?
Here's a quick rundown of how it will likely go down.
Expect Mulcair to take full advantage of the 10 minutes normally accorded to witnesses for opening statements — and, conversely, expect his MPs to protest loudly if, for any reason, it appears he may be deprived of a single second of allotted time.
As for the content, the New Democrats haven't been particularly shy or retiring in putting forward what they clearly see as a solid line of defence, but Mulcair may well come armed with documents to back up his contention that there was nothing remotely inappropriate about using House money to foot the bill for out-of-town "outreach" offices or pre-byelection mail drops.
From a strategic perspective, he'll also be hoping to provide at least a couple of pithy, broadcast-friendly quotes to balance out the less easily managed Q&A portion of the meeting.
From Mulcair's and his team's perspective, it's crucial that he remain sanguine and serene under even the most hostile questioning, or it will emphasize both the "Angry Tom" meme that they've been trying, with varying success, to neutralize since he assumed the leadership, and potentially make it sound like he's on the defensive.
Given that, you can expect the non-New Democrat MPs at the table to do their best to push Mulcair's buttons in hopes of triggering an eruption, while simultaneously steering clear of the sort of all-party pile-on that would bolster the NDP claim that the whole exercise is nothing more than a partisan witch hunt.
New Democrat MPs, meanwhile, will endeavor to give Mulcair every opportunity to reiterate his key points — namely, that the party followed all the rules, and can prove it.
They will also be on the alert for any questions that seem to go outside the bounds of either the terms of reference or generally accepted parliamentary behaviour, and won't shy away from calling on the committee chair to intervene if they feel it is warranted.
For Mulcair, the ideal outcome will be to come out of the meeting unscathed, and without having lost his temper in a floridly camera-unfriendly fashion.
If he can also provide conclusive, compelling evidence to back up his party's claim that House administrators were fully aware of the satellite office staffing expenses, it will likely shut down any attempts by rival parties to prolong the House-mandated study by calling additional witnesses.
Alternately, if the New Democrats appear to be holding back key documents — like, for instance, the lease for the Montreal office, which, as of Wednesday afternoon, had reportedly not been handed over to the committee as requested — or other relevant information, there's a good bet that Mulcair's appearance will do little to quell the controversy.